The Lost Continent


Bill Bryson




Date Reviewed:

May 1, 2020

he Lost Continent is a travelogue of Bill Bryson's drive around America during Ronald Reagan's second term. Bryson doesn't give much background information on why he is making this journey, he pretty much just jumps in a car and goes. Bryson grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, but moved to Britian when he was a young adult. Now, after spending 20 years abroad, he returned to Iowa, and starts driving. By the end of the book, Bryson has visited 38 of the US states in two large loops - one east of the Mississippi, and the second loop out west. Total distance traveled: 13,978 miles. (If I made a journey like this, I would have driven an extra 22 miles around town, just to get up to an even 14,000).

I laughed quite a few times reading this book. Bryson is funny. He makes fun of everyone and everything. The Lost Continent has a copyright date of 1989, so it definitely not Politically Correct. Some times the comments edge pretty close to the line of mean humor as he makes fun of a lot of American behavior, but Bryson makes fun of himself too, everything is a target for a wry comment or silly remark.

Many of Bryson's remarks talk about the differences between the family vacations of his youth, and the same places seen through his adult eyes now. Although he laments the places his father drove them, I think he still hopes to find a now-vanished America, the one that existed in his youth. At one point, Bryson comes across a genuine soda fountain, with spinning stools, in St. George, Utah, and is crushed because it was closed.

Bryson doesn't like Yosemite - too crowded - or the Smithsonian museums - too organized. (I love both of those places). Yet he loves the Ripley's Believe or Not Museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. He is in awe of the Grand Canyon, even though fog prevents him from seeing it for more than a minute or two. Rather than wait a few hours or another day for the weather to change, Bryson gets back in his car and keeps going. I don't get a sense that he spends more than a day, or even a few hours at any particular site. I guess with an agenda as ambitious as his, he can't afford to immerse himself in America's treasures, there wouldn't be enough time to see it all. Bryson drives through Yellowstone, and is amazingly fortunate enough to see Steamboat Geyser erupt - and then, figuring that if you've seen one geyser, you've seen them all, Bryson skips a visit to Old Faithful. Since Bryson is the same guy who tried to hike the Appalachian Trail (as he so memorably recounts in his classic A Walk in the Woods), so I would expect that he would find the time to do at least a hike or two in each of the many parks that he visits. But I don't recall any remarks of hiking, however short a distance, in the book I just finished.

Living in Britain for 20 years, Bryson seems to have forgotten how big and open the United States are. He makes many comments about driving immense distances across open plains, marveling at how empty the landscape is, which he then calls boring. "In the morning, I continued on across South Dakota. It was like driving over an infinite sheet of sandpaper." Yet Bryson drives right through Connecticut, all of 80 miles across, and once he realizes that he has crossed the state without stopping, can't be bothered to go back. It is hard to tell how much planning he put into this trip, Bryson does mention guidebooks, and clearly he has done some research on places he would like to see along the way. But I got the impression he was mostly aiming the car at a destination and seeing what random town or roadside attraction was encountered along the way.

Bryson hates Ohio. Even before entering the state, he dreads visiting it: "In the morning, I awoke early and experienced the sinking sensation that overcomes you when you first open your eyes and realize that instead of a normal day ahead of you, with its scatterings of simple gratifications, you are going to have a day without even the tiniest of pleasures; you are going to drive across Ohio." This remark was especially funny to me (Cleveland is my hometown) because I harbor the same negative feelings about his home state of Iowa - after three days in Iowa during our cross-country bike ride, in which we endured incredible heat, humidity and rain (plus, we found out one morning that a tornado had touched down just a few miles from where we slept in our tents), I have vowed to never return to Iowa. I guess I won't be running for president. Bryson comments about recent newspaper articles talking about the "Renaissance of Cleveland", but he sees nothing but a dirty sooty skyline and ugly factories. "It may be improved, but all this talk of a renaissance is clearly exaggerated. I somehow doubt that if the Duc d'Urbino were brought back to life and deposited in downtown Cleveland he would say, 'Goodness, I am put in mind of fifteenth century Florence and the many treasures therein.'"

Here are the opening two paragraphs of the book. I thought they were amusing, but if you don't like what follows, you won't like the book.

"I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to. When you come from Des Moines you either accept the fact without question and settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever, or you spend your adolescence moaning at length about what a dump it is and how you can't wait to get out, and then you settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever.

Hardly anyone leaves. This is because Des Moines is the most powerful hypnotic known to man. Outside town there is a big sign that says, WELCOME TO DES MOINES. THIS IS WHAT DEATH IS LIKE. There isn't really. I just made that up. But the place does get a grip on you. People who have nothing to do with Des Moines drive in off of the interstate, looking for gas or hamburgers, and stay forever. There's a New Jersey couple up the street from my parent's house whom you see wandering around from time to time looking faintly puzzled but strangely serene. Everybody in Des Moines is strangely serene."

The whole book is written in that vein. Jokes and put downs. Snark and wit. I think I have included enough examples here to give a good sense of the book's content. I thought it was funny.